BEIJING – China’s police have intimidated, detained and even beaten foreign correspondents in an apparent attempt to prevent overseas media reports on shows of anti-government solidarity planned online.
Three Sundays running, online calls for organized “strolls” and a "Jasmine Revolution," inspired by the recent popular overthrow of Tunisia’s government, were posted to Chinese social networking sites.
Some say the anonymous organizing was done by overseas Chinese and a rankled dissident community holding out for democracy, bearing Beijing a grudge despite its leadership having delivered 30 years of economic growth.
Western reporters accustomed to small-scale and quickly-extinguished popular protest turned up each Sunday in big cities to see if any Chinese were upset enough with the one-party government to gather in designated spots, such as a McDonald’s in downtown Beijing or near Shanghai’s Peace Cinema.
TV and print journalists from ABC News, a division of the Walt Disney Co., CNN, a unit of Turner Broadcasting, The Associated Press and The New York Times, among dozens of others, turned up to find few would-be protestors but hundreds uniformed and plainclothes police.
Paramilitary units, dog squads and at least 100 vehicles started patroling Beijing’s Wangfujing Street on Feb. 27. Each Sunday since, trucks have driven up and down the pedestrian thoroughfare, spraying water and soap on the road as police try to control crowds.
With few exceptions, almost everyone apart from the police and the foreign journalists has seemed to be a clueless passerby, out for weekend shopping, reporters on the scene told The Hollywood Reporter.
Yet when camera crews showed up – and when the outgoing U.S. ambassador, Jon Huntsman, went to McDonald’s to eat lunch with his family and their security detail – Chinese police swarmed the scene, throwing a BBC cameraman into a van, and severely beating a reporter from Bloomberg News.
Many of these incidents were caught on tape by other reporters and passersby on the scene and are making their viral rounds on YouTube, revealing the very images authorities appeared to want to avoid.
Afterwards, a spokeswoman form China's Foreign Ministry denied overseas journalists were beaten by Chinese police, saying at a regular press conference: "There is no such issue as Chinese police officers beating foreign journalists."
Some China analysts say that the police behavior reflects the Chinese Communist Party’s only possible response to any hint of upheaval of the sort the world has been watching on television in the Middle East and North Africa. The only reaction to sparks of unrest in a country of 1.3 billion people, the argument goes, is to keep public order at all costs.
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at a press briefing Monday denied that the country was experiencing internal tension. Yang said he had not noticed any warning signs that China's domestic situation had been affected by revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.
He dismissed reports of Chinese police officers harassing foreign journalists, saying China’s law entitles authorities to regulate journalists' behavior.
But roughing up overseas resident journalists credentialed by the foreign ministry appears to counter Premier Wen Jiabao's 2008 decree in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Wen said then that it was no longer necessary to get specific government permission to conduct interviews in public and the foreign press corps hailed his openness.
Now foreign correspondents residing in China are being reminded by visits and phone calls from the police that they must once again make official requests to carry out interviews in so-called “sensitive areas.”
This Hollywood Reporter writer got a telephone call last Saturday morning, just before the start of the annual National People’s Congress now gathering in Beijing, to remind him of these revived restrictions.
At 9am, a woman from the Beijing Public Security Bureau’s domestic security arm -- the same branch that handles dissidents -- called to say that “the local authorities” must approve in advance any interviews conducted in or around Tiananmen Square. When asked who exactly to get in touch with for permission, her final answer was, simply, "We will let you know.”
ABC News correspondent Clarissa Ward had two policemen bang on her apartment door Saturday afternoon bearing a similar message.
“They claimed that they needed to talk to me about my registration and asked for my passport and residency [slip],” Ward wrote in an online account, adding that her visitors’ parting words were vague yet unambiguous: "Make sure you understand Chinese law.”
Chinese law requires that police agree to show their own identification first if they ask somebody else for his or her ID.
Yet dozens of other foreign correspondents have faced similar visits and even been detained for several hours of questioning by police who have declined to give their names first. At least four reporters have complained that their Gmail accounts have been hacked into in recent days, according to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, an organization still deemed illegal by China's government.
So it is that Beijing’s most popular weekend shopping areas of Wangfujing and Xidan have been filled the last three Sundays with plainclothes police picking non-Asian visitors out of the crowd and asking them for their ID and to move on.
“I was not carrying a camera and they had no way of knowing I was a journalist from looking at me; it was clear that I was stopped simply because I was white,” ABC’s Ward wrote.
The Chinese government has also threatened some foreign journalists with the revocation of their credentials and residency permits, a particularly sticky situation for some who have married Chinese nationals and are raising children here.